Umm…what exactly is botulism? (Part I)

Glad you asked. This question is going to be answered in three parts, because it’s rather hefty, but very important to home food preservers, especially people who like to make canned products. The next three entries will cover the topics of Botulism: Sources (what it is and what it does), Botulism: Solutions (how you can prevent it), and Botulism: Surprises (did you know…).

Botulism: Sources

You’ve probably heard of botulism, and you likely know it’s a deadly foodborne disease. But do you know what causes botulism and how it works?

Let’s start by examining the source of botulism: rod-shaped bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. This microorganism is commonly found in soil and in marine sediment. It exists in two forms: as protected structures called spores, and as vegetative cells. To picture these forms, you could imagine spores like seeds and vegetative cells like sprouting plants.

C. botulinum spores are extremely common in soil and marine sediment, and therefore are also commonly found on the surfaces of fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Spores are generally harmless to adults (but can be harmful to infants; more about that later). The spore stage is formed when the bacteria are in an environment they find unfavorable; it is a protective stage that keeps the cell dormant or inactive but allows it to survive. When conditions are favorable, spores germinate into vegetative cells. Active vegetative cells are able to colonize and produce deadly botulinum toxin.

So what are those favorable conditions that allow the growth of C. botulinum?  Very low oxygen (such as in a sealed canning jar) and low acidity, meaning a pH value of 4.6 or above (such as in meats, vegetables, and some tomatoes, figs, and Asian pears).  That is why home food preservers need to be informed about Clostridium botulinum— you are not only dealing with the bacteria, but also the conditions ripe for them to grow out and produce toxin.

jars of veggies

What are the signs and symptoms of botulism? When consumed by humans, the neurotoxin produced by vegetative cells binds to nerve endings that join muscles, preventing muscles from contracting. Symptoms begin with nausea, vomiting, weakness, and dizziness which usually appear 12-36 hours after consuming the toxic food. Next are neurological symptoms such as blurry vision, difficulty speaking and swallowing, and lack of muscle coordination. Eventually the diaphragm and chest muscles become affected, which prevents breathing and results in death from asphyxia.

Can you do anything to stop botulism once the illness begins to affect the human body? Quick medical attention and injection of antitoxin can stop, but rarely reverse, nerve damage. Also, the antitoxin cannot always be used due to serious side effects.

Information in the entry comes from the USDA Factsheet Clostridium botulinum and So Easy to Preserve.